As English evolves, I’m increasingly stumped

I teach at a university. One of the “problems” this presents is that, as the years pass, I get older, but my students remain the same age.

Linda Bleck

The classic 1951 science fiction film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” features an indestructible robot (Gort) whose threatening actions are tamed only when an earthling is told – by a sympathetic alien – to command it, “Klaatu barada nikto.” What does this mean? I don’t know. But when I overhear my students speaking to each other, I am often similarly stymied. 

I teach at a university. One of the “problems” this presents is that, as the years pass, I get older, but my students remain the same age – 18 to 22. Early on, when I was in my 20s and 30s, this wasn’t an issue, as we were close enough in age to speak the same language. But lately I have become acutely aware that a linguistic ship seems to have sailed, and I am not on board.

Let me illustrate: Recently, when I walked into my class, my students were chatting amiably with each other. One of their comments caught my ear: “Venmo it to me.” I had no idea what “Venmo” meant, so I asked. The good-natured students were happy to explain it to me, and in return I nodded with an expression of silly embarrassment, as if I should have known better.

I went home that evening preoccupied with that moment of noncomprehension. And a thought occurred to me: Imagine if someone like, say, Ben Franklin precipitated in modern America and the first sentence he heard was, “Shoot me an email or get me on Kik.” 

What on earth would he think? As for me, I looked up “Kik” on the web, but the problem is compounded because I didn’t even understand the definition, to wit: The popular app which is free to use is similar to Viber …


I am not against change (how can someone be against the inevitable?), but I am uncomfortable with change when its velocity has me hanging on by my fingernails. I once confided to a friend that if I were to awaken from a five-year nap, I’d have no idea what people were talking about. I just wouldn’t understand the language. 

Here are some more examples I’ve gleaned from my students:

“Let’s connect on Instagram.”

“We can do a WhatsApp group chat.”

“I can put it in a Slack channel.”

“Hit me up on Telegram.”

When I overheard that last comment, I remarked, “Oh? Do people still send telegrams?” The student, a young woman, threw me a look that can be summarized in one word: pity.

And so there is another side to this coin of noncomprehension: It seems to endear me to my students. When I plead ignorance about this or that term or concept, they leap into the linguistic fray to assist me over the obstacle, like good Scouts helping a senior to cross a busy street. It’s a case of the educator becoming the educated, and I am sincere when I say that I am grateful for their charity and forbearance. 

I’m also happy that I’m not paying them for labor.

The Irish writer George Bernard Shaw said that England and America were “two countries separated by a common language.” I can relate. I know my students are speaking English, and yet the gulf between us seems to be widening with the passing semesters. 

Their willingness to explain their utterances to me is a great comfort, and I congratulate myself on at least having the desire to know what they’re talking about, as well as on my ability – for the most part – to understand their explanations. 

But what will happen if my interest wanes and that aforementioned linguistic ship finally disappears over the horizon?

The answer, to me, is clear: Klaatu barada nikto.

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